Hosts UAE entered the T20I World Cup Qualifier as the top-ranked (13) side in the tournament, but few would have considered them as the favourites after they were thrown into crisis just days before the start of their campaign.
Losing the services of three key players right on the verge of the tournament opener would have dented the morale and confidence of any team, but UAE’s woes were compounded by the fact that one of them included their talismanic skipper Mohammed Naveed.
With important players such as Naveed, Shaiman Anwar and Qadeer Ahmed suspended by the ICC after being charged with multiple breaches of the anti-corruption code, the tide most definitely was against the UAE when they took on their much-improved neighbours Oman in the Group B opener in Abu Dhabi.
That they fell to a comprehensive defeat was no surprise, given the preceding circumstances, yet newly appointed skipper Ahmed Raza was defiant in his post-match verdict.
“I am very happy with the squad I have and I am very happy with the playing XI I picked today,” Raza said after the seven-wicket loss.
“I am going to back them throughout the tournament and I am going to back every single person who was in that dressing room today.”
Those words would come to bite back Raza despite his men bouncing back from the Oman loss with consecutive wins over Ireland and Hong Kong. Those wins would only paper over newer cracks developing in the team with further drama awaiting the hosts after their Hong Kong victory.
Opener Ashfaq Ahmed was provisionally suspended by the Emirates Cricket Board (ECB) as part of the ICC’s ongoing investigation while Ghulam Shabber was found to have gone AWOL just hours before the Hong Kong clash.
Shabber was later revealed to have returned to his native home in Pakistan, with the wicketkeeper blaming the poor financial remuneration as the cause of his sudden exit in the middle of a crucial tournament.
While no formal charges were laid against Ahmed, the loss of both players was another big blow for the UAE after they had finished as the team’s top run-scorers in a recent 4-0 series whitewash of Netherlands.
The loss of five key players showed as the UAE fell to a defeat against 26th ranked Jersey, with the result putting their qualification hopes in real jeopardy. Another misstep would definitely have meant curtains for their 2020 World Cup ambitions.
Despite the odds being stacked against them in what is turning out to be a highly competitive Qualifier tournament, Raza’s men developed a new-found resilience to keep their hopes alive. A resounding win over Nigeria, and a 14-run victory in a high-pressure clash against Canada, have ensured that they will now get two bites of the cherry to seal their ticket to Australia.
TWO BITES OF THE CHERRY
The first of them comes against the Netherlands – a side they swept aside with some aplomb in Amstelveen just over two months ago. It won’t be as easy this time, not without Naveed, Anwar, Ahmed and Shabber. But they can take comfort from the fact that unlikely heroes have raised their hands in the most testing of times.
It was Zawar Farid who blazed his way to an explosive fifty against Nigeria in his very first match of the tournament, while veteran Muhammad Usman came to their rescue with a career-best 89 in the Canada win. Meanwhile, Rohan Mustafa has carried the torch in some style in the absence of key stars while skipper Raza has led from the front with the ball throughout the campaign.
A World Cup spot might still elude the UAE ultimately, but they have shown that they won’t go down without a fight. Amidst the turmoil and chaos, Raza and his ‘remaining’ men are still flying the UAE flag high.
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